Italian who saved Jews during Holocaust recognized as martyr by Catholic Church

religion | Jun 18, 2012 | By Martin Barillas

Odoardo Focherini was an Italian newspaper editor and a father of seven children. During the Second World War, he helped hundreds of Jews escape from persecution by Germany's National Socialists and their allies by producing false documents that allowed them to reach safety beyond the Swiss border.

Already considered a Righteous Gentile by Israel Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for his heroism, Focherini has come another step closer to being recognized as a martyr and a saint by the Catholic Church. On May 10, Pope Benedict announced the beatification of the Italian martyr.

Born in 1907, Focherini had been active as layman in his church, having served in Catholic Action and in Catholic youth groups. In 1939, as war began to spread in Europe, he became editor of L'Avvenire, a newspaper based in Bologna. It was in 1942 that Focherini began his resistance to the Nazi persecution of Jews and other enemies. Responding to a call from Cardinal Pietro Boetto of Genova, Focherini came to the aid of Polish Jews who had been brought by train to Genova and bound for the Nazi extermination camps. Working closely with his publisher Raimundo Manzini, Focherini also collaborated with Delegazione per l'Assistenza degli Emigranti Ebrei - a Jewish resistance group that was active from 1939 to 1947.

(Odoardo Focherini and children)

At great personal risk, Focherini obtained from trusted collaborators the blank identity documents that were used to provide false identities to the Jewish deportees. With help from a parish priest, Fr Dante Sala, Focherini managed to set up an underground network of contacts to convey Jews to Switzerland and to safety. However, on March 11, 1944, Focherini was arrested at a hospital in Carpi for having arranged the successful escape of the last Jew he was able to save, Enrico Donati.

Focherini was jailed in Italy and then taken to a concentration there until his deportation to Germany in September 1944 where he was kept at the Flossenburg concentration camp. Of his time of detention there, 166 letters that Focherini sent to his family and friends bear testimony to his courage. In one of his letters, Focherini wrote that if Italians had known what the Nazis where doing to the Jews in the camps, they would have done more to save them. He was ultimately transported to the Hersbruck concentration camp near Nuremburg where he died of an infection in his leg on December 27, 1944, in the company of his friend Teresio Olivelli - another Catholic who had been deported for working with the Italian resistance to the Nazis. Olivelli would not long outlive Focherini, since he was murdered by a camp guard within one month.

The first official recognition of Focherini's heroism came from the Jewish community of Italy, which awarded him a gold medal for "sparing no effort to actively and tirelessly aid Jews over a long period..." In 1969, Focherini along with Fr Dante Sala were added to the list of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Israel. In 1996, the cause for his beatification was begun by the Diocese of Carpi in northern Italy, while it was in 2007 that the Italian government awarded him a posthumous Gold Medal of Merit for his heroism during the Holocaust. In 2008, he was also recognized by the Jewish community of Modena and Reggio.



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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